[Don’t] Want to Be Held: Late 20s, Late Capitalism, and Loneliness

New decade, same old tricks, including extended meditations on loneliness (again), this time as a sort of thinking alongside Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely and this playlist, one of many I’ve made while in my feelings where I appear to have taken up permanent residence. (This isn’t necessarily a negative thing.)

***

“In my dream I apologize to everyone I meet. Instead of introducing myself, I apologize for not knowing why I am alive. I am sorry. I am sorry. I apologize. In real life, oddly enough, when I am fully awake and out and about, if I catch someone’s eye, I quickly look away. Perhaps this too is a form of apology.”

-Rankine, p.98 

Early in 2019, I thought I learnt a lesson about vulnerability and what happens when you share too much too soon, but I’m starting to think that was the wrong lesson. It might be true that you can’t spill some of your unspoken and unspeakable pain very early into getting to know someone without the possibility that they will be overwhelmed and retreat from you, which they are wholly entitled to do. It is also true that some people are just trifling and will reappear after six months of ghosting with the excuse that they lost their job and their pet died, not insignificant life events, but none of which impede the ability to text or call for six months…but I digress. 

Lonely structures in Amherst, MA and Amherst, VA.

More importantly, I spent a fair amount of that six-month period berating myself for committing what I though was the foolish mistake of allowing myself to be vulnerable, for trusting someone I didn’t know that well, for ignoring the “obvious” warning signs one is inclined to identify only after the fact to try and make sense of the hurt. I also felt shame, most of it related to and caused by the details of the thing that I shared, which I am still incapable of explaining straightforwardly except for the vague repetition on this blog of maybe that didn’t happen. maybe I didn’t say no.  But some of this shame came from the belief that I had no one else to blame than my self for thinking that it was safe to lower my emotional walls, and that I was actually deserving of care from someone who I wanted to care for as well. Please let me know if this is too much. I completely understand and would rather you said so than disappearing...

How could it be/ 20 something/ all alone still/ not a thing in my name/ ain’t got nothing, running from love/ only know fear -“20 Something,” Sza

Even the nebulous “societal/gendered expectations*” we always refer to in conversations around how people relate to each other somewhere along the scale of romantic vs. platonic (I don’t know if I believe that these things are polar opposites or mutually exclusive) can’t seem to agree. On one level, as long as you are acceptably relentless in the pursuit of material wealth—not only for personal advancement but towards the enrichment of your family, especially in cultural contexts where the collective sacrifice comes with an unspoken assumption of mutual responsibility—cultivating a varied and exciting social life, a promising career or one that will inspire approval and maybe a little envy when your parents brag, you don’t need to be worrying about all that romance stuff…until you do, most probably when that same collective who helped with school fees, medical bills, childcare etc. decides that it is indeed time to start worrying. At the same time, any expression of loneliness or yearning for different sorts of intimacy are met with a figurative averted eye, secondhand embarrassment for the person who is presumed to feel themselves inadequate on some level, they must, otherwise they would not be looking for completion in someone else. 

Stills from music video for Girls Need Love (2018), dir. Lacey Duke 

Girls can’t never say they want it/ Girls can’t never say how/ Girls can’t ever say they need it…-“Girls Need Love,” Summer Walker

And then there is the further complication of what happens when you meet someone you find attractive for any number of reasons, but don’t want to be the one to remove the facade of nonchalance first, don’t want to be the one to send multiple texts in a row, to invite out, to ask to be held, to call on the phone, to be left on read. I hope these lamentations are not mistaken for the sort of rhetoric that blames millennials (an often amorphous demographic rarely identified according to the wide differences across which we walk in this world) for our own despair when fascism, white supremacy, the cruelty and greed of capitalism, and pretty much everything about the world as we currently know it are right there deserving of a large portion of the blame. I don’t even think that the fear of vulnerability or intense self-protection which may also resemble self-sabotage in the context of relationships is something that is unique to our generation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was easier to ghost when your only options were letters or landlines, and I also know of 100% certified adults (i.e. around our parents’ age) who chose to disappear rather than be upfront with their ex-partner about their changed mind or circumstances.

“You spoke aloud?

 I said, God rest me.

 You’d let me be lonely?

 I thought I was dead.” 

-Rankine p.16

It’s possible that if I was a historian, economist, sociologist, or some other sort of social scientist who also happened to have a solid grounding in Black feminism, critical race theory, and maybe psychology**, I would be able to make a more meaningful connection between capitalism, how we care for one another (or not), how consumption defines our lives to the extent that we are disposable to one another, the rate at which we consume all kinds of information without necessarily processing what we’ve seen***, how many of us fear appearing too earnest or too soft (millennials did not invent sneering at sentimentality, for the record), how everything we do and are has been priced and sold along with our personal data and our persistent hope of finding genuine connection with other humans who will try to be as careful with us as we try to be with them. 

Stills from the film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012), dir. Terence Nance 

“That’s too much…

 Like dying?

 Maybe, or death is second.

 Second to what?

 To loneliness. 

 Define loneliness.” 

-Rankine, p.58

loneliness (noun): a state of being or a fear of being seen that leads to feigning cynicism and nonchalance, or running and hiding from that person or situation requiring more vulnerability than feels safe. a secondhand**** imposition, so that even if one is vulnerable and willing to be seen, one can be left with open hands and open heart letting in all the whistling wind. a place where we spend our time despairing and desperately seeking something or someone to hold on to. 

But I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have had very similar conversations with Black women who are very dear to me, all in their mid- to late 20’s, who have described a sort of loneliness that doesn’t disperse even in the face of the deeply loving friendships we maintain with each other and busy lives that include making art, political advocacy work, doing something one hates because rent is due, and other preoccupations. Even the acknowledgment of the extent to which societal pressure (there they go again)* dictates mandatory partnership***** when a woman reaches a “certain age” is not enough to diminish the longing to be seen and cared for in ways that are still inarticulable, precisely because some of the dimensions of this loneliness are inarticulable as well. 

Stills from the music video for Planet U (2018), dir. Dawit N.M.

These contradictions manifest in the music we dance and cry to, from the soulful to the at times derisively described as “whisper-singing.”  In “Planet U,” my new musical obsession Mereba raps “Never feel alone cos I’m getting to the stacks” chasing money > chasing a text back in the same verse as the earnest statement, “your gold heart keeps away my blue.” The same SiR who echoes Zacari’s line, “I ain’t in the mood if I ain’t in my bag” also starts “John Redcorn” with the question, “Why am I alone/ Every night alone when I know that you want me too?” 

(Left to right) Lonely structures in Somerville, MA, Bridgetown, Barbados, and Boston, MA.

Because I have made far too many generalizations than I am comfortable with, I should probably point out that me my self, I am used to romantic relationships in which I have felt objectified, belittled, or picked apart for what seems like the fun of it but was most probably because the picker-apart was threatened by the very parts of me they claimed to admire and wanted to break them. This means that the fear of being (or rather appearing) thirsty or desperate and the reluctance to trust other people remains next to the self-doubt and insecurities left over from those encounters, even years after the fact. Even as I continue to grow more comfortable and even enamored with my self and the body she inhabits, I am also tired of being bombarded with reminders about colorism, ableism, classism, statistics on who is swiped right on the least on dating apps, and all sorts of other seemingly larger than our lives structures which suggest that loneliness or private admiration/fetishes concealed by the public performance of scorn are our lot in life as Black women, no matter our age. 

Girls need love too

Girls (and by girls I mean this writer and anyone else who might recognize themselves in these words) need to find work that allows them to meet their material needs without also crushing their souls in the process; girls need to stop hiding if they want to be seen and cared for with intention; girls need to stop hiding and feeling hurt and abandoned when they are not seen in the way they would like to be; girls need to stop hiding.

Girls need love too

Girls need to love and be loved without the fear of obliteration of the self, girls need to be cared for without the fear of that care being thrown back into their faces when it becomes difficult, girls need to love and be loved in healthy ways that do not involve manipulation and martyrdom. Girls need to disabuse themselves of the idea that seeking care and intimacy is a trivial pursuit just because this desire to see and be seen is not necessarily contributing to the (presumably more urgent) well-being of other people.

So what’s a girl to do when she needs loving too

***

*I describe social norms and -isms as “nebulous,” not because I believe in the slightest that these violent forces are somehow intangible or cause no real threat in our lives, but because I’ve realized how easy it is to list, as I did, without really getting to the heart of what these forces do and how they subjugate and confer power at the same time. What am I so afraid of saying that I’d rather conceal it with the -ism checklist?

**I don’t know that I think these credentials are absolutely necessary to attempt to comment on these matters, but I could see how the personal experiences I’m able to name and explore could be given more context had I more of an ability to connect the dots with the help that rigorous study and training can provide.

***On a regular day, my Twitter feed reads something like the following: snarky tweet about living in Boston—climate catastrophe in the Amazon/Australia/on the coast of Senegal and Ghana—what this incredible Black woman artist is up to—African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean—Rihanna’s cleavage—celebrity worship is a plague—eat the rich—self-deprecating tweet about failing as a dutiful African daughter because I cannot yet pay back all the financial sacrifices and contributions that have been made for me—what does solidarity across diasporas look like in the face of American imperial horror—pleas for Rihanna to release her new album—who is the real leftist anyway?

****It has only been two years since “My Secondhand Lonely” was published, but I feel so much more mature, and I’m trying hard not to condemn my past self too harshly but damn, the martyrdom. I was expecting things from people I wasn’t willing to open my mouth and vocalize, burning myself out with other people’s trouble out of love, sure, but also out of a sense of dutyI thought if I didn’t, who wouldand a fear that if I didn’t, they would abandon me.

*****Partnership specifically with a cishet man, as anyone else would be a different sort of taboo even more unimaginable than remaining single…

To My Mama Alwin Mana

There’s this voice I have previously referred to as an imp, that seems to have taken up near permanent residence by my side. Its main job is to remind me how terrible I am the minute I start to feel too comfortable, when I seem to be getting closer to living up to my middle name Dzifa, “my heart is at peace.” It has remained there, even as I have adored every moment of working with students this summer, and especially when I have had to speak up to people with more authority in academic spaces in ways that are daunting and tiring because I seem to have to do so often.

You are always the one with the problem *and* the solution.

Taking up too much space.

Presumptuous. Arrogant, even.

The voice is always there because it is me, but it feels more romantic and less frightening to externalize it, to carry on as if I don’t know that I am the main one picking myself to pieces at every turn. Constantly ready to berate myself in anticipation of mistakes, when I actually do make one, it feels world-ending in a way that it wouldn’t if my mind didn’t work the way it does. Between job-searching while trying to be present with students, and navigating relationships and life in general, my self-policing/self-silencing/self-punishment mechanisms have been working overtime, even in the face of exciting news.

I recently started a part-time job, an incredible position I didn’t think would  necessarily be an option for me, as the Editorial Assistant at Transition Magazine, and I’m optimistic about finding another part-time position to add to it. I’ve been reading a whole lot, and writing not as much as I should be, but still writing. Yet, I can’t shake the heightened urgency and anxiety that has characterized my approach to life for the past few years: Nothing is ever enough, especially not myself.

I feel guilty and sorry all the time, just for being the way I am, and for being at all, because my default positioning is that any personal crisis could have been averted if only I had just tried harder to be better. Some of the time, this is actually true. Self-centered, I know, because no one woman [has] all that power*, but it’s hard not to feel like every wrong thing rests on some lack or failing on my part when the imp just won’t shut up and allow me to make sense of life.

I am also terrified of isolation, so much so that I might end up isolating myself anyway as a result of my behavior, or things I say, or things I leave unsaid. I’m trying to stop “unsaying,” and to listen more carefully to myself and to other people, and to try to understand myself as more complicated than the sum of all my wrongdoings, as more than an ever-growing list of the ways I have or will hurt myself and other people. I absolutely want the people in my life to hold me accountable for my actions, and to be able to hold myself accountable, but I’m just wondering if there’s a way to do this without it hurting so deeply. Or maybe it has to hurt, and you just have to eat some of that hurt and put the rest in your pocket for later, for when you start to feel lazy or complacent, for when accountability turns into a buzzword instead of an ongoing practice.

Most of all, I’m realizing that a lot of the work of realizing that I’m not so terrible as the imp– me myself– would have me believe has to be internal, with a lot of help from an amazing therapist, and voice notes from my mother late at night. On another note that isn’t as unrelated as it may seem, I’ve been thinking and dreaming a lot about my great-grandmother, but she hasn’t actually said much to me in those dreams. I’m not sure what I want to ask her or want to hear her say, if I’m honest.

Because today is a more clear-headed, less anxious day, I must also add that I’m feeling grown. Grown like my mum mid-90s with more confidence than you’ve ever seen, and the fluffy roller set and denim minidress combo, except without the child (yours truly) she had at the time. I feel grown, settled into my newly 26-year old body in a way that allows me to see how troubling it is that so much of this blog consists of me turning against myself obsessively, pointing out every flaw I can find in my own thinking, my feminism, my writing, or my actions, and with a strange impulse to do so publicly, as if I’m anticipating other people will chime in with their own harsh critiques of me. These small acts of tearing myself down haven’t been productive in the least, nor have they necessarily made me a better person or writer. It feels exhausting to look back through some of those posts, and I’m so grateful you are still here reading when I tend to say the same things repeatedly in slightly different ways.

And this is where the fear of personal writing usually kicks in, the fear that there is something disingenuous about trying to find the prettiest and most evocative language to describe real life pain, yours and that of other people. And doesn’t the narrator always make themselves martyr, the long-suffering yet still dazzling star of the show, if all the reader can see is through that narrator’s eyes? Now that I have fully devolved into a cryptic babble, I will take it as a sign that this post could have ended a few paragraphs earlier than it has. So I pause, for now.

***

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I miss her all the time, especially these days.

To My Mama Alwin Mana

-through an intercessor because I am too afraid to say

Dadá, you are mother in life, and in memory, which means you live still

And you didn’t enter a room like an avalanche clearing a mountain side only for your child to carry herself like this, to be sifting through pebbles looking for the fractured pieces of good sense she has dashed to the ground

She is looking for you on streets in places too frigid for your spirit to land:

Sweetie, you know what time the bus coming?

They say

Bon…I lost my stop, cherie, you know where I can get the number 1 bus?

They say

She is looking for you in the scarf creases of someone else’s grandmama or tatie, in metal shopping carts rocking on uneven wheels, and inside old money bills folded between scrap paper with a fading phone number scratched across in blue ink

It’s embarrassing, Dadá, frankly she is embarrassing herself on your account, look

She is calling you all kinds of names and you do not come, names she never knew you as:

Mama Mana

Dadá

La Vierge Noire

Our Lady of la Caridad del Cobre

Star of the Sea

protector, protect me, she says

“Voici la Porte de L’éternel, c’est par elle qu’entrent les Justes.”

She is leaving smudges of herself everywhere, kohl watered and blurred on her fingertip, face powder smeared on her shirt collar (a few shades off for August skin) dust sitting on the ridge of her bed’s headboard, and round the rim of the bath, scum

All this, and your back is still turned against her. And if it wasn’t for your usual no-tune hum hanging around your head, she wouldn’t even know it was you

Dadá, she has failed because she isn’t the kind of steadfast you borned her to be.

She cannot bear to tell you herself, and so she sent me

***

* Kanye *slavery was a choice* West has been on the outs with a lot of us for a long time, but this quote felt appropriate in this context…

(Image: Taken in Somerville, MA by yours truly on Wednesday 8/8/2018. I decided to take the longest walking route home, and I passed this Haitian Seventh Day Adventist church on my way.)

Miss Freda Pays a Visit

Since my last post, I’ve felt myself retreating further into myself, further into silence. I have been talking a lot, but I’m not saying anything of consequence, anything that matters, or saying anything I really want to say. I’ve typed and erased several messages and tweets, and felt the urge to call someone to relay some funny or frustrating or mundane subside as soon as I think to pick up the phone. It may seem odd that I feel so silent when most of my days involve interacting with other people, particularly when most of those people are eager high school students with a lot of fascinating insights to share. I had a really uncomfortable encounter with a stranger in public yesterday (I’m ok). I thought a good cry would help me feel less agitated, but I couldn’t get any tears out.*

But I’m still here, and still writing for myself, for this blog, and for you.

I submitted the following piece of flash fiction for the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by Warsan Shire (!!!) I made it to the penultimate round–15 out of 225 submissions– which is pretty encouraging. I’m so grateful to the Afreada editors for considering me and my work. I’ve had some other works published on Afreada, “Pain Control” and “Safe House.” I’m hoping to turn this into something longer, you know, as soon as I find more words.

***

On the third day she came to visit, all the sharp edges in my house fell to pieces. I discovered them hour by painful hour, as I moved from dusty corridor, to bath, to wood-floored bedroom dotted with several months’ worth of shed hair and fluff. Sewing scissors– their gold handle rusted over with neglect– sat scattered on my work table; screw, blades, and finger rests spread far from each other as though they had never been whole. The old-time straight razor I used to shave my head was also apart from itself, its cutting edge bent in half like it was made of paper and not steel. Even the keys jammed into my room’s locks were dull around their teeth.

“The keys too? Is that not a bit much?”

My voice scratched its way out of my mouth, hoarse from lack of use, but she behaved as though she hadn’t heard me.

“Miss Freda?”

She was still, just as she had been on her first two visits, careful not to make any forceful movements that would topple the unsteady kitchen stool she sat on. She usually stayed no more than three hours, sighing whisper-soft every few minutes, and rearranging her lean arms across her chest when she grew stiff.

“Girl. You are still mourning? Still trying to end yourself?”

Her voice lilted and chimed like a dinner bell, but there was some sort of distortion to the sound. It was almost as if my head was submerged in water, and I was listening to her through the muffle. I stood silent in front of her, watching the 4 o’clock sunlight spilling lazy orange warmth over the window sill and onto my feet, narrow and much-veined just like hers.

“Miss Freda, didn’t you die?”

She ignored me. We might as well have been taking part in two different conversations, running parallel and eventually away from one another.

“Anyway, I deadened the keys too, just in case. It would be torturous to go that way, but I thought you might still try.”

She laughed to herself like high heels kicking on concrete and added, “You this child of ours.”

“Of ours? I’m no one’s but my very own.”

Miss Freda kissed her teeth and rolled her eyes so far up and back I thought they would stick.

“Girl. You think you made yourself the way you stitch those clothes? You think you hold yourself together all on your own?

As she spoke, she adjusted the yellow film of fabric she wore for a dress. The way she called me Girl made me forget my real name. I knew she was the aunt that followed her sister, my distant and unloving mother into sickness and then death years ago, but I felt more lifeless before her brazen self. What did she want with me?

“Give the sharp edges a rest, girl. You are all of us. You are a wide sky inside too stifling a house. Let me show you–

***

*My current obsession, Alice Smith’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You” in Black Mary, the short film by Kahlil Joseph, helped me a little with the words and the tears this afternoon.

Black Mary
Still from Black Mary. Directed by Kahlil Joseph, 2017.

 

For Miss Freda, and for all my Lilians

A lot of my recent writing has been an attempt to gain understanding of Ewe and Haitian Vodou, without being disrespectful or misrepresenting these already maligned and misunderstood religions. I’m Ewe, but have not been initiated into nor do I practice Vodou. I didn’t grow up listening to our creation myths, or folktales about why certain animals behave a certain way, and so on. One of my most persistent fears is to turn these beautifully fearsome spirits and gods into glossy and easily consumed half-versions of themselves, or to co-opt imagery with little care for its origin or significance. I haven’t yet been able to get over the discomfort of trying to tap into a heritage that I know mostly in name and phrases mixed with English only. I’m also careful not to idealize pre-colonial ways of being and of understanding the world as some sort of utopia as yet unsullied or destroyed by European colonialism.

I feel as though I’m always seeking approval or permission to be curious about these things, even though they are the very things that have made me and my imagination possible. So, I’ve been reading and researching as much as I can about Anlo-Ewe spirituality, and about life before and during European conquest in my part of what is now Ghana. I’ve been asking my relatives a lot of questions, and trying to be as careful a student as I can be. I’ve been writing characters and settings, as well as praise songs and prayers that seem authentic to these spiritualities, while making a conscious effort to avoid copying elements wholesale into my work. I’m trying to write a world that appears as though it would fit into the universe my forebears imagined and created for themselves.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about love, partly because of Erzulie Freda– lwa of love, luxury, and sensuality– who is always trying to take up more space in my work than I have given her. The rhetoric around love being a superior response to rage, and a cure-all for oppressive structures has also been on my mind a lot, mostly because it frustrates me so much. Most of the “well-meaning” people who try to bludgeon the (rightfully) enraged with this sort of rhetoric do not usually mean love in any meaningful or transformative way. They simply mean “Lie down and die quietly; your protests are a nuisance and make me uncomfortable.”

In an attempt to keep writing in spite of my current anxieties about the general state of the world/career/debt/life/relationships, I’ve been picking quotes or passages as prompts for my posts, and it’s been a pretty productive exercise. Here is a praise song/prose poem in response to two quotes, one from Sula, and the other from Terence Nance’s 2012 film An Oversimplification of her Beauty.

***

24653278-c582-416d-b481-c2668e501ed6
My beloved and beautiful Grandma Lilian. I’m named after her– I have two middle names– but I don’t think the name suits me that well. I don’t have the requisite kind eyes and pleasant disposition, I feel.

“Love: an art form slightly removed from its intended context.”

-from an Oversimplification of Her Beauty

“Like an artist without an art form, she became dangerous.”

-from Sula

And so Erzulie Freda’s lastborn sings:

Love has chosen my own head as a seat for her crown.

I am gilded fury hardened in the heat of clenched fists, and I am sweet joy whispered in your ear on the night side of dawn. I come from beyond the Universe’s horizon, sweeping across the sea in a hot wind, troubling the water, and the sand, and the flimsy cloth in your windows, and the tufts of hair and dust in the corners of your room.

Love has lent me her face and the better one of her eyes that shines mischief and liquid silver when I laugh.

I am everywhere you look and, and especially where you hide. I live on your heaving shoulders after a healthy cry, and in the curves of your ears where the salt from your tears turned crystal.

Love has blessed my hands with enough power.

I am firm fingers scrubbing stubborn sweat and grit from your scalp each evening, and I am lifting your work-weary arms to tie your sleeping scarf­ –careful like– so my nails won’t catch on the threads that have fallen loose from its weave.

careful

I am of Erzulie Freda’s dangerous charm.

I am of colossal proportions.

I am everything.

First, the Fire

“Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. “Is? My baby? Burning?” “

“…Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

-from Sula by Toni Morrison

***

So, I’m writing.

I’ve been giving myself writing exercises in an attempt to free myself for this frustrating halt that I’ve been feeling each time I’ve tried to resume working on my thesis project recently. The way I see it, if I keep writing around and around, I will eventually write towards my actual work, as long as I’m always writing pieces that exist in the same universe as the one that I’ve created for my novel. With that in mind, I’ve invented a series of plagues that are sort of “biblical” in the sense that Christianity and a lot of its symbols and imagery have been fused or absorbed into Ewe and Haitian vodou (This is related to the research I’ve done for most of my time in my MFA program, and I wrote about it briefly here).

I didn’t grow up with the ritual of burning fallen hair after braiding or combing, but I’ve grown fixated on that image after encountering it repeatedly in Black women’s writing across the diaspora. Someone is always burning shed hair immediately before some sort of tragedy, or before the next “strange thing,” as Toni Morrison puts it in Sula.

I re-read Sula a few weeks ago, and it was not the more spectacular instances of burning that stayed with me, not Eva setting fire to Plum in his bed, or even Hannah going up in flames in the yard and Eva leaping out of the window to try and save her.

Rather, it was the smaller, the seemingly more ordinary; Nel’s grandmother using a burnt out match to darken her eyebrows, or Sula’s return, marked by birds, and by Eva burning her shed hair with her back to the same window she once leapt out of. In Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, we are to believe that it is Cocoa’s fallen hairs, those that didn’t get burnt, those that end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket, that lead to her painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other, and I wrote about that here.)

My first plague is fire.

***

There is oil hissing and spitting inside. It’s possible that it is frying on too high heat until whatever you had wanted to eat is shriveled and burnt, stuck to the pan’s deep rusty belly, forevermore resistant to any scrub. It could be that the stove’s heat is too great, or, that the whole house is burning, and I am going with it.

Don’t you want to see what you can salvage

 There is something frying inside, but you are still and always slim legs, not crossed, but rather arranged one next to the other, grey dusting where your ankles meet from too many dry afternoon hours exposed to the air. Something is on fire, and your skirt is bunched up in messy fistfuls high on your thighs. Your feet are in the dust next to mine on the lower step and something is on fire. Yet, you just sit.

You have gathered the fallen hair from my head into a feathery ball and set it alight, three clicks of a lighter and a curse. There is something burning inside–I am sure– and yet, you sit, with my shed strands flaming first between your pointer and your thumb, and now in the palm of your hand.

Maybe the whole house is burning, or maybe it is just my scalp is scorching sweet mercy. I told you not to make the parts so small this time,

I told you I am something tender–

(Image by Hannah Firmin, from the cover art of the Grafton Books 1982 edition of Sula)

 

Procedure

rewriting (again) or reimagining this post I wrote a while back called “Recovery.”

***

“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”

-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

 “–let me go mad, Grandmother. Let me bleed and be forever lost and no one.”

-Toni Cade Bambara from “The Survivor,” Gorilla, My Love

 The ones on the top row were the first to go.

I spat them out on a plate one day, next to the wrecked remains of chicken bones, and watched them sink into the orange oil smeared across the porcelain. I looked on, bored, almost as if they were not for me.

The wisdom ones went next, the irony so apparent it was almost nauseating.

They shattered into someone else’s mouth. The time has long come and gone, and they still can’t tell if that is grit or bone or me causing their jaws to grind and stick, worn down and rusty as an forgotten mill

Finally, it was right up front, on the left.

I missed the silent warning. The root perishing in place, turning the enamel outside slowly brown and darker still ’til the surface was crumb like the sugar I love in my tea.

How could you let it get this bad?

Well, I decided to crack and vanish myself little by awful little.

I have a little time–

This Is Emerson

Nothing that I have to say is particularly new. If you’re tired of hearing it, imagine how tired we are of saying it over and over. 

***

Being a graduate student-instructor means that I must now call “colleagues” some of the same classmates whose racist and generally problematic writing and feedback I had to endure in workshops, whose microaggressions (the cumulative effects of which are anything but “micro”) I had to swallow and smile away, or bite back, in literature and theory seminars.

“I feel like you talk so much in class because the professor loves you. Or you know, maybe you talk so much because of where you sit.”  It’s not like my brain is attached to chair. (This was my actual response). But sure, we can switch seats. It just won’t change the fact that your real gripe is that you’re now struggling in graduate school with the same Aimé Césaire text I read in the original French as an undergraduate. So maybe examine why exactly it is you’re so pressed?

Not my problem.

It’s even more infuriating that I feel the need to position myself in this way before saying what I really want to say, to shore up my credibility by name-dropping Césaire, and gesturing to how all my Black girl magic is never quite enough. And this is just one mild example.

At the moment, my most urgent concern is no longer this kind of comment directed towards me, because, well, I’m *me* and I’m not intimidated.

I’m concerned because some of my colleagues think it’s enough to sprinkle some James Baldwin here and some Gloria Anzaldúa there, a few extra credit points for a dash of some social justice buzzwords there, and shake to serve.

I am disheartened by this strange insistence from some people in the MFA that we are “writers and not academics,” here to work on our writing and not engage with “dense” theory, as if our creative work exists in some vacuum beyond the reach of scholarly pursuits.

I am frustrated because certain people think it’s enough to cherry pick works by people of color to use in their writing classes, without grounding their teaching in any clearly defined radical intellectual tradition.

I am distraught because an arts school such as Emerson College actually has the potential to create classroom spaces that are truly transformative, that threaten the empty complacency of our own institution, and push us all to more just and sustainable futures. Instead, we call it radical when students get to write essays about music videos (extra points if the artist is Black or brown!) and then we keep it moving.

And I am exhausted, because instead of expending my energy on attending to my mental health, and on my work that celebrates all there is to love and mourn in the Black diaspora, I am writing this post. [It’s 10 to 1 in the morning and I should be asleep.]

Just focus on the writing.

Meanwhile brilliant students are using their precious time to organize and march and sit and chant and cry, instead of working on the art they came here to perfect. Focus on the writing, but we are not pushing students (especially those who have never had to think deeply about how their comfort may depend on someone else’s strife) to unlearn the harmful ideas they may have already absorbed before getting to us.

I come from a place where it’s commonplace for textbooks to list the “advantages and disadvantages” of colonialism, and so can do no more than laugh a bitter laugh when I see false equivalences and ahistorical arguments used to try and hush any kind of dissent or critique.

Hold hands and love each other. But my Black friend told me…This hurt my feelings and I will no longer listen, how dare you call me racist? 

And beyond this kind of ignorance, so generic and unoriginal it makes me bored rather than enrages me, we have the pièce de résistance; a direct quote from a classmate’s feedback to an essay I wrote in which I discussed, among other things, how white women are afforded space to play helpless victims of the scary Black person, even after saying and doing vile things. I may or may not have also witten the phrase “Fuck forced sisterhood with white women,” and *that* my dear friends, was my  ultimate sin:

I absolutely understand that Black women have entirely different struggles and might need a different type of feminism than white women [We might? How kind of you to notice!]…Who’s forcing the sisterhood? I encourage the author to think about the way she views feminism/womanism…

As if I am not the daughter of a mother that considers Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens a guiding light in the form of a thick book with long-yellowed pages. As if I would need a white woman to explain womanism to me… Feminism is about gender equality and women helping other women…Alright “sis,” so how exactly are you helping me, when your response to my critique of white women wielding their femininity like a weapon, is to essentially dismiss me as divisive and too angry, or angry at the wrong things?

In the humanities, in our stale rooms packed to the ceilings with books, we have pages upon volumes of information about the slippery way in which power moves, years of careful analysis that explain how and why it is possible for one to benefit from a system that is resting on someone else’s bent back, without recognizing the invisible powers at work.

What are we really doing with the knowledge we have? What is the political engine driving our acting and writing and filming? What else needs to happen for us– for you– to realize how high the stakes are?

I have sharpened my oyster knife at Emerson, but my spirit is dull, and I am absolutely fed up.

***

Read more about what’s happening at Emerson College in the students’ own words.

Petition: Demand Action from Emerson Administration

(The Final) Inventory

For some reason, I keep coming back to this piece I wrote in 2015 called Inventory, and the short story I tried to make out of it (here and here). I’m still not interested in finishing it, nor am I any more inclined to start writing *that* immigrant student story that so many African literary critics and readers have declared self-indulgent, tired, and geared towards the “Western gaze.” These critiques of others work aren’t a deterrent for me at all, partly because I hate being told what to do, but mainly because I’m just far more excited by being able to set stories in Accra or in some other magical African diasporic elsewhere that only exists in my imagination (shout out to the thesis I should be working on!) I think i’ve returned to this old story again because I’m finally at a place where the real events that inspired the writing aren’t as upsetting to me as they once were (and I mean both the things I did and those that were done to me). I left out the most hurtful parts that were a little too real, and altered certain details to make the protagonist feel a little less like me. I can’t claim to know what “letting go” really looks like, except to say that for me it’s a continuous process that feels more final and successful on some days than others.  

***

assorted lingerie

I think the store assistant called them “periwinkle.” I couldn’t be sure, because she was evidently uninterested in my stuttering inquiries; the novelty of mocking nervous first-time shoppers had long evaporated and she blinked slow lids up and down as though she was minutes from falling asleep. “So, do you want these gift-wrapped, or not?”  I liked this particular pair of panties because their color was somewhere between purple and blue. The white lace trim reminded me of the heavy porcelain jewelry box a distant aunt had given me as a gift at a time when I was far too young and not pretentious enough to appreciate faux Victorian-era trinkets with November dust permanently stuck in its crevices. I already had a bra to match, and I stood in the crowded hall at Union Station grinning like a birthday girl because I felt as though I had a secret destined only for your discovery.

You were going to be visiting family in Maryland for the summer, a 30-minute drive from where I lived in DC, and I found it to be the perfect opportunity to make poor attempts at hiding the bitterness which I spat at you on a video call.

Ugh. I just– I hate to be selfish or to even bring this up at all, but I’m the one always coming up to see you though I know you can afford the trip and then some. You know I’m on work study, and this summer my campus job only gives me four days off, but my roommate is away, we can have the place to ourselves and I just–

I have to admit that I didn’t do a good job of concealing the manipulation I had fooled myself into calling I-just-want-to-spend-time-with you and It’s-only-fair. Emotional blackmail was only  if you looked closely and a little too long at the shadows behind words and the pauses between them.

“Hmmm. Ok you…I’ll see what I can do.”

Yesss alright! So here’s what I was thinking. There’s a Ghanaian restaurant in Adams Morgan–

“I’m not making any promises though, so don’t get too excited.”

I had been fidgeting with the pink tissue paper my new underwear came wrapped in, but for some reason your response made me want to rip it between my jaws and stuff it down my throat. I was getting what I  wanted, what was my problem now? I wanted you to come and visit me, but I also wanted you to want the exact same thing and to be happy about it. Be happy, whatever it takes.

I stood at the station with one hand behind my back, just above the point where the blue lace began, pulling imaginary puppet strings so that when I spotted you walking the yellow-lined maze of the parking garage, I could almost pretend that you did not already have a strained expression on your face. We would act out a scene from one of those novelas that used to bring us to the point of tearful laughter, because the characters had pale faces but had been dubbed to speak English just like we did, complete with “oh” and “ei” to show alarm.

You would set your weekend bag on the ground next to your feet and sweep me up into the air in a ridiculous spin of euphoria, and old women pushing babies in strollers and young couples sharing ice cream cones would smile at us indulgently as we said hellos set to background music of whiny guitar strings. The reality was that the ground was spotted with puddles of engine oil and dirty rainwater and you would never set down your expensive suede duffel on it, and the lovely grandmas and picture perfect couples were actually frustrated travelers with curved pillows dangling from their necks and toddlers screaming their exhaustion as they trailed behind.

“So are you gonna move? Goddam disrespectful kids…”

I don’t know why you’re angry. It’s not my fault the bus was delayed.

I don’t know why you’re even here. Nobody forced you to come.

Now my hands often wander to the part of my hip where the bone juts out, and it feels rough and unpleasant, as if someone has filed it down in an attempt to make it softer, less obtrusive. I realize that it is the imprint left from the lace scratching me in the same place every time, imprinting on my skin with its curling patterns intended to look like flowers. I am wounded in the same spot where your persistent hands burnt through the fabric with urgency like latent heat, so that the scar now looks more like the inside of a dead tree, each swirl and crisscrossing lines showing just how long this excruciating process of “getting over it” is going to take.

I begin to rifle through the underwear folded in my top drawer, checking the seams and frills, ripping out loose threads every so often. I even used my teeth to pull out the cream lace from that bra you liked. I didn’t realize those were the same threads tying the muscles in my face together to keep myself from slipping sideways and away.

1 ring finger (loosely jointed)

I’ve taken to cracking the ring finger on my left hand, so I’ll take out the knuckle and place it beside all my other things. It’s relatively easy to do, but the difficult part comes when I try to pry the residue of back-when-it-was-different from underneath my fingernails. I’m trying to sift through all the mistakes to find out when the gap between what I thought and what I actually said began to widen, until I learned to fill it with what you wanted me to say. I’m taking stock of myself today. I’m digging through empty chewing gum wrappers at the bottom of my handbag and scrolling through unanswered messages, trying to locate the moment my weight threatened to snap your back, or the moment I realized that with you I was the worst possible version of myself. Was it when the formerly steady stream of phone calls dwindled to a reluctant drip? Or when you were very clear that I was “stuck in the past, acting like we’re still 17 and 18 in high school” and didn’t I know that we had left the “honeymoon phase” behind? Or maybe it was when you started assigning “points” to rate my performance as someone who was supposed to love you; thumbs up for driving to your house late at night in a car I’m still scared to drive, and for performing remorse for all the self-centered monologues I forced you to endure about school, friends, the weather. Penalties for refusing to drive you to town for dinner, for bowing my head and letting you call me out my name and “call me out”–

“Shame on you. You don’t try. Are you…crying? You know I’m a bully, right?”

Is that a smile? Is that the sound of you enjoying this?

I hope that one day we can meet at one of those over-priced restaurants close to my job, where bright red umbrellas stand next to storefronts almost entirely covered in gold paint and stamped all over with the same designer logo. We can pass empty conversation back and forth between ourselves.

“I finally got the investment bank job I’ve been sweating for.”

That’s nice. Happy for you. I’m thinking of applying to grad school. Can’t work retail forever. At least I can say I really understand people now? Should help with psych, right?

Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Actually, let’s not. I still have a lot of self-cataloguing to do, and your “bullying” has set me back much further than I may ever be able to catch up. It’s taken me so long to discover that I may have been asking the wrong questions, how can I be better, instead of when did you give up? Or when did you start talking to her again? When did it start feeling like cheating? I just found a scratched mix CD and a coupon for a free dance class. I’m shuffling papers for the trash and shuffling selves until I find the original one that I cracked

when I tried to fit it into the right self for you.

Mute

I just had a short story published in the “Power and Money” issue of Saraba Magazine! You can find my work here, alongside several great pieces of fiction and poetry.

I was very anxious about this story from the time I turned it in to a fiction workshop last year, and all throughout submissions and rejections from different magazines. I’m still anxious about it now, mainly because it’s part of a larger project to trace links between Ewe and Fon folklore and cosmology in traditions to other parts of the African diaspora.

Who am I to even attempt this? I’m not from the land that is now known as Benin. I’ve never visited Haiti or Louisiana, two other locations my research has led me. How can I do my work without turning deities and beliefs I know little about into objects for sale? Who am I to even attempt this, when on my best day I can’t write a full sentence in Ewe that is grammatically correct without help from relatives?  How much can I fictionalize without being disrespectful? Also, is every market scene in an African story automatically cliché?

The pressure of these unanswered questions was made much more bearable by the Saraba Magazine editors who were incredibly patient and thoughtful during the editing process. I never once felt like I was being forced into changing any aspect of the story to fit the magazine’s aesthetic, nor did I ever sense that my concerns and suggestions weren’t being taken seriously. It’s an amazing feeling to entrust your work to people whose approach shows that they actually care about your writing.

This particular story isn’t based on any one folktale that I’ve come across, but rather combines details about actual places I have lived in and visited with the narrative of a supreme being that exists in my imagination as much as she does in Ewe religious beliefs. This story is part of a much larger project that still mostly exists as a mood board, scattered passages and research notes. It wouldn’t make sense to say much else at this time.

You can find links to my other published work here.

(Image: Cover page of Saraba Magazine’s “Money and Power” issue. Artwork: Daniels, Aisha. “Untitled.” 2016.

Kiss the Ring

Happy New Year! And we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming…

***

It has been a long 8 years, but Sunday morning has finally arrived and your white linen is hanging stiffly around your body, hardened by starch and lack of wear. The congregation mumbles their way through the hymn before the sermon, and you try to ignore the sweat dripping down the side of your face into your collar, the smell of perfumed powder cut through with sweat, and the back of a dusty wardrobe-old cloth shaken out and worn only for special occasions such as this

The “increase” you have been fasting and praying for is here. Later, the celebration will take place in a pointed white tent, its interior draped with chiffon and washed in purple light. Gospel songs will be remixed to include the name of your benefactor: we thank God that he has showered you with blessings. You have done your duty, worn the right colors, lobbied outside locked doors in ministries for hours for 5 minutes to pay your respects, to pay for your forms to be considered for a little longer before they are tossed in the shredder or at the bottom of the big man’s out tray beneath invoices

per diem for staff training payable to

Your time is now; you deserve this. Contracts that have stalled will now come complete with a narrow sign board stamped with your name and that of your company, school fees will no longer involve shifting around funds from other parts of the budget, or borrowing from relatives who are better off but begrudging. You will see appointments to a small advisory board for deciding the color of street name signs, maybe even scholarships and opportunities for your children to study abroad, or at least at a private university somewhere on the outskirts of Accra, invites to the most talked about weddings and opportunities for your white linen to loosen up from frequent use and proximity to luxury

The pastor screams POWER IS MOVING! The church rumbles in chorus Amen! Meanwhile, you, sitting at the back in your righteous disdain for all the people you dismiss as social climbers, you typing this account at a frenetic pace, trying to atone for sinful acts you didn’t have a choice but to partake in. You tell yourself, it’s just the way things are around here, you say, it’s a question of survival. You are usually law-abiding and resistant to the decadence festering about you, you will sit in the waiting room at DVLA with the air conditioning sputtering and groaning to cool a room full of increasingly restless people for 3,4,5 hours with a book you’re reading for the second time, have I really been waiting this long?

But you see, this time is different. You’re hoping to travel to Lagos in the new year and you need this passport before then and you just *hate* to do this…so you will give a regretful grimace-like smile to the mother whose child will not stop crying, the man whose lunch break is almost over and pretend you don’t see their eyes rolling in frustration, they know how this works, they owe you no pleasantries

It doesn’t matter how

uncomfortable you are how

deferential you are how

many “good mornings” and how

much earnest eye contact you make you can’t ignore the way jammed doors creak open, how impatient frowns ease into knowing smirks, this is HIS niece and no one ever has to utter his name for all the officials to follow the other protocol for people with your sort of connections

No one knows or cares how many jobs you’re holding down outside, the difference in status elsewhere for someone with your blackness and woman-ness.

The single digits dwindling in your bank account still come out green when you withdraw cash

You will only be able to disassociate yourself so far from the power pulling out thrones from under certain backsides and placing velvet pillows beneath others, power that operates silently in the background no matter which colors fly from the majority of windows and rear view mirrors

It’s Sunday morning, and you can keep your pretentious musings to yourself, like the fact that even where we worship is determined by how many zeros we write onto our tax returns (if we pay them) and how well we can roll r’s on demand in front of the window at the US embassy. Or how odd it is for us to be nostalgic for a time when we would not have been able to dirty the polished marble floors of the kinds of hotels we now enjoy, even in our best shoes: Gold Coast City, Villa, Manor, Castle, Colonial Suites… Power is moving in the same halls it has always adorned with its presence by way of framed black and white portraits of “freedom” brokers, it is trapped tightly in the fists that will punch the shoe shine boys and street hawkers in the stomach and the pocket, it is a generational blessing the leftovers of which you can only taste when those who are most “blessed” and most “hardworking,” most deserving and in possession of the most contacts have had their share

keep quiet and unfold your white hanky, wave it high, give praises to democracy working to kill as it always has and always will

(Image: Ghana Independence overprint on Gold Coast 1s stamp, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghana_Independence_overprint_on_Gold_Coast_1s_stamp_1957.jpg)